Half-full: Baz rebounds. Half-empty: Bats stay flat

June 18th, 2022

BALTIMORE --  bounced back Friday night. The Rays’ lineup didn’t.

Baz put his rough season debut behind him by striking out seven over six dominant innings, a strong second start that served as a reminder of the top prospect’s enormous potential. But his outing ultimately went to waste as the Rays’ collective slump continued in a 1-0 loss to the Orioles at Camden Yards.

“We definitely want to put up runs for the backbone of the team, which is our pitching,” outfielder Brett Phillips said. “But right now, it's just not happening.”

After the Rays were swept by the Yankees earlier this week, a change of venue didn’t heat up their bats. They out-hit the Orioles, though each of their eight hits was a single, but walked just once while striking out 13 times against Baltimore starter Dean Kremer and three relievers. Tampa Bay didn’t advance a runner to third base all night and sent only two men to second: Yandy Díaz in the first inning and Taylor Walls in the eighth.

“It kind of carried over from our last series in New York,” manager Kevin Cash said.

The Rays have scored a total of four runs as they’ve lost four straight games, tied with an April 13-16 skid for their longest losing streak of the season. They are 1-6 on their road trip through Minnesota, New York and Baltimore, their first seven-game stretch with six losses since last June 16-23.

Tampa Bay’s pitching isn’t to blame. After Baz’s first career quality start, the Rays’ starters have allowed just one earned run in their last 25 1/3 innings. Their pitching staff as a whole has allowed five hits or fewer in five straight games, the longest streak in franchise history, while yielding two earned runs or fewer in each game. Yet the Rays have won only one of those games, falling to 35-29 on the year -- closer to the last-place Orioles than the first-place Yankees in the American League East standings.

“We're going through a rut right now,” Phillips said. “We know how good we are -- just not right now.”

Cash credited Kremer for mixing his pitches to keep the Rays off balance and noted that the Orioles’ relievers who pitched in the series opener -- Félix Bautista, Cionel Pérez and Jorge López -- are putting together impressive seasons. But Phillips acknowledged the Rays might be beating themselves in some ways, too.

“Maybe we're trying to do too much with some of our key offensive guys being out, maybe pressing,” Phillips said. “I know I am.”

The best example might have been in the sixth inning, when the Rays had two hits and wound up running into two outs at second base. Vidal Bruján reached on a leadoff single to left, only to be caught stealing. Then Ji-Man Choi, who has hit safely in 14 of his past 15 games, was thrown out trying to stretch a single to right field into a double.

“You've got to keep your head up. It's part of the game,” Bruján said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We've got to keep on working. We're hoping to get some wins here soon, but you've just got to stay positive.”

With their lineup in a funk, every mistake the Rays make looms that much larger. But Baz didn’t make many, giving them a chance to win as he quickly moved past his 2 1/3-inning season debut in Minnesota.

Pitching on his 23rd birthday with his parents watching from the Oriole Park stands, Baz’s command still wasn’t particularly crisp in his first two innings, as only 14 of his first 26 pitches were strikes. But he found his release point and his offspeed pitches after that, particularly the slider that finished five of his seven strikeouts, and threw only 50 more pitches as he breezed through his final four innings.

“It’s a lot more what I expect -- just at least giving us a chance, as opposed to the game before where I kind of blew the lead,” Baz said. “Just trying to make them earn their way on and just give us a chance.”

But Baz is still building up his endurance after recently completing his Spring Training-style progression with Triple-A Durham, so he knew his night was over after six innings and 76 pitches.

Cash then turned to rookie reliever Calvin Faucher, who said he “tried to be too cute” with the location of his slider as he allowed a one-out double to Ryan Mountcastle and an RBI single to Adley Rutschman. Phillips’ throw home took a tough hop that led catcher René Pinto into the left-handed batter’s box, unable to tag out Mountcastle as he scored the game’s only run.

“If it's a few feet in front of where it landed, it's a long hop. If it's a few feet back, it's caught in the air,” Phillips said. “You're just looking to get the ball over the pitcher's mound and give your catcher a chance there. But I mean, it's unfortunate the way it bounced.”